Posts Tagged ‘dim sum in London’

Edwardian pie-and-mash shop interior of Shanghai restaurant in Dalston

Edwardian pie-and-mash shop interior of Shanghai restaurant in Dalston

A few weeks ago, on our way to Mangal Ocakbasi to pig out on tasty grilled meats, Jon and I once again passed Shanghai Restaurant on Kingsland Rd.

Two things have always made us curious about Shanghai: (1) we wondered if it served good xiao long bao (for which we will travel far and wide); and (2) the interior is gorgeous – colored-glass dome skylights, intricate tilework, marble-topped bar and dark wood booths.

So last weekend, on our way to check out Victoria Park (it’s truly amazing how you can live in London for years and still not have seen everything), we decided to try the dim sum at Shanghai.

There were lots of Chinese families in the back dining room (which is run-down-looking and furnished with the large round tables you normally see in Chinese restaurants), and lots of hipster (non-Chinese) guys hanging out along the bar, waiting for their takeaway. An interesting mix.

As we tend to do at dim sum, Jon and I ordered up a storm. The best of the dim sum was the luo bo gao (radish cake), which isn’t saying much given how simple it is to make, but at least it was served fresh from the pan, crispy on the outside and silky-smooth on the inside, with bits of shredded radish in there.

In contrast, all the prawn dishes (har gau, cheung fun) were packed with prawns, but sadly, the prawns didn’t taste like anything. Where I expected sweet, firm prawn flavor, I found only chewy blankness. Not good. Taro and yam croquettes were served lukewarm (a no-no when we’re talking about fried foods, wouldn’t you say?); black bean spare ribs were all fat and no kick; and shu mai were also all-fat-no-meat.

disappointing xiao long bao at Shanghai restaurant

disappointing xiao long bao at Shanghai restaurant

The worst was the xiao long bao. I mean, the place is called Shanghai, home of the xiao long bao! And *the above* is the best they could do? I could look past their shriveled ugliness if they were juicy-soupy on the inside, but alas, no soup to be found. The minced-pork-shitake-mushroom filling would’ve made a really excellent wonton, but it made for a rather poor xiao long bao. Contrast the photo above with the beauties here at Leong’s Legend, and you see how far off Shanghai was.

Based only on dim sum, Shanghai isn’t worth a re-visit. But we did order one item off the “regular food” menu, a rice dish served with pork and preserved fish, and it turned out to be quite good. Simple, hot and filling, and less than £5 – check it out:

pork and preserved fish, served with white rice

pork and preserved fish, served with white rice

The salty-meatiness of the pork and the preserved fish was perfect with fragrant white rice. And I always love a bit of scallion to lighten things up.

So because the front dining room is so pretty and atmospheric, the service so efficient and sweet, and this one rice dish so simple and good, I might go back to Shanghai the next time Dalston is on my way somewhere (rare). But I definitely won’t go back for the dim sum.

I normally don’t bother trashing on small, “unknown” places (since really, it’s hard enough running a mom-and-pop business without someone on the Internet giving you grief), but as I googled around for info on the restaurant to write this post, I saw that Shanghai seems to have serious financial backers as well as a loyal following (just look it up on Qype, TrustedPlaces, etc.). So they’re not the little ol’ underdog I thought they were, and therefore (I think), fair game.

Most dim sum dishes were £3-£4, so our (enormous) meal for two totaled £30.

Shanghai, 41 Kingsland High Street, E8 2JS; 0207 254 9322; closest station: Kingsland overground (or a 15-minute bus ride from Highbury & Islington tube station).
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Pearl Liang restaurant interior, Paddington, London

4706 on the Chinese calendar started this past Thursday, and as tempted as I am to make a joke about this being the Year of the Rat, I’ll refrain because my parents both happen to be Rats.

Anyway, because I’m lame and wouldn’t dream of organizing a celebration on a school night, I pretended today was New Year’s with dim sum at Pearl Liang.

prawn cheung fun at Pearl Liang restaurant, London

Despite its location in a soulless office complex behind Paddington Station, Pearl Liang has a lot of interior style, polite service, and high-quality dim sum. Prawn cheung fun and prawn dumplings are filled with juicy, sweet shrimp (that’s not overcooked into chewy tastlessness). Pork shu mai is another one of my faves at the restaurant – again because the bits of meat are identifiably pork, rather than the usual pork fat with pork bits.

turnip cake and xiao long bao at Pearl Liang

And what this photo above fails to show clearly are the xiao long bao. They’re filled with meaty broth and encased in a thin, dough shell, and while the pork filling isn’t as dense as it is at Joe’s Shanghai or Din Tai Fung (always the gold standard), they’re tasty and £2.50 for three, which is cheap enough that I can load up guilt-free.

Because Pearl Liang’s decor is so pretty and the food so quality, I always feel lucky that the prices are so reasonable. Regardless of how much we’ve stuffed ourselves with, the tab always seems to work out to about £20 per person. And that’s something to celebrate. Happy belated new year!
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Ping Pong Restaurant, James Street

My friend Val organized an outing for dim sum last weekend, and when she told me that we were headed to a restaurant called Ping Pong, I had to admit that I had doubts. It’s the name. Ping Pong. Not even table tennis players like it when you refer to their sport that way, so why would I want to try a dim sum restaurant that decided the most Chinese-sounding thing they could name themselves was a term that has no meaning whatsoever in Chinese!?!

Well, attempting to act like a normal person sans weird hangups, I agreed to Ping Pong, and our group of three met at 12 noon at the James Street location (ack! a chain, no less), near Bond Street tube.

When I reached James Street, I saw that the restaurant doors were open, but Val was standing on the street corner. Why? Because even though the restaurant opens at 12, you can’t set foot inside until the staff says you can. So we stood outside for 15-20 minutes, staring inside through the wide-open doors and waiting for a signal that we could step over the threshold.

At last we were admitted and then told that the three of us couldn’t sit near the French doors that opened out to the lovely sunny day. Apparently, those tables were “just for groups of two.” In the otherwise empty restaurant, the three of us had to sit in a four-top near the restaurant bar in the back.

Things could only improve from there, no?

The dim sum menu offerings, while limited, are just £3 a dish, and they’re actually not bad. The shao mai is passable (hot and meaty with a firm bite), and the chive dumplings aren’t bad once you get past the green-colored skin.

My favorite part of the meal was the Jasmine tea. Though it’s £2 per order, you’re served your own “ball” of tea, which opens up into a flower once you pour hot water in. Hot water is repeatedly offered as a top up, so cheers to the attentive service.

The decor is best described as Hakkasan-lite, with dark woods in a vaguely Chinese motif pattern.

And the best part is that when you’re done with dim sum, Selfridge’s is just around the corner. Which makes Ping Pong a nice, inexpensive choice for a meal when you’re shopping.
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Yauatcha exterior, 15 Broadwick Street

Our friend Tom Perrotta has been staying with us for the past week. Tom is a journalist who covers tennis for the New York Sun, and he’s here to write witty and smart articles about Wimbledon for said newspaper.

Because Tom’s working day and night, it’s rare that Jon and I can take Tom out for fun and games in London, but yesterday, we were able to round up a group of what can only be called Tom’s peeps (his brother-in-law, Eric, and his friends from NY, Dave and Sharon) for dinner at Yauatcha followed by drinks at a great late-night pub, the Angelic.

Yauatcha is what you’d get if Hakkasan served only dim sum, which isn’t surprising given that both restaurants are owned by Alan Yau. Both have high-style, underground interiors designed by Christian Liagre, and both serve very fresh food made from quality ingredients. I love hole-in-the-wall dim sum, but it’s nice to know that the pork in the shu mai is really pork, instead of a mysterious composite meat. The restaurant is packed and the food is still good, despite its having been open for three years now.

Yauatcha feels a little factory-like with its strict cancellation fee calculated at £20 per person and an enforced 90-minute limit on how long you have your table. But given the quality of the dim sum and the sexiness of the decor and crowd, it’s hard to resist eating there more than once. We waited outside for a while for our table despite having made a reservation, but standing next to Kiefer Sutherland and his friends made the wait outside kind of a plus. (For me to spot a celebrity, he/she would have to introduce himself and show me ID, so good thing Tom and his friends were more alert than I am).

Once inside, the noise level was high, but not deafening, and the food ranged from good (e.g., chive dumplings) to creative and fantastic (scallop shu mai). The seafood-based and tofu-based dishes were my favorites. Scallops and prawns were always sweet and firm, and even the shanghai soup dumplings had a hint of crab to them, the way I used to order them at Joe’s Shanghai in NY.

Almond prawn deserves special mention because I loved how it was fried in a ribbon-like shell of what must have been a flat pasta, so that was a super-attractive and delicious dish

Service was friendly enough, though the servers looked so harried that we almost felt bad about trying to get someone’s attention to, say, order more wine. It’s amazing the restaurant can actually get people in and out in 90 minutes given the appearance of frenzied chaos in the dining room. Generally, restaurants in London staff very leanly when compared to restaurants back in the US, and while I understand that restaurants would like to keep costs low, I think having a better ratio of staff to customers would improve everyone’s lives.

In any event, our party of six ordered 13 dim sum plates and two main course plates. Even including three bottles of a light, floral gewurztraminer, our tab totaled £38 a person. It’s expensive for dim sum, but good value for the food and decor.

Because last night was the end of an era, after dinner, our friends joined many other pub patrons in a last smoke before midnight. Then, at 11:30 pm, when most pubs close, we left the madness of SoHo for the late-night comforts of the Angelic, back in our own neighborhood. It’s really too bad that even with a late-night license, pubs close at 1:30, but we continued the party back at our place, so it was a good time anyway.

Yauatcha, 15-17 Broadwick Street, W1F 0DL; 0207 494 8888; closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus

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crispy Beijing-style pork dumplings

Things I hate about London Chinatown:

1. The ten thousand bajillion tourists there. What are they there to see, exactly? Have they never seen Chinese people? Seriously, I hate going to Chinatown and feeling like I’m part of the scenery.

2. The many crappy and overpriced restaurants that cater to Point Number One above.Things I love about London Chinatown (and that outweigh the things I hate):1. Chinese groceries in Chinatown are awesome. Loon FungLoon Fung supermarket Supermarket, the biggest one, sells 22-pound bags of Jasmine rice, ten thousand brands of soy sauce, super-convenient frozen dumplings (the “Beijing Brand” pork-and-chive deserves special mention) and stocks “Great Wall of China” wines (I’ll let you know if I ever screw up the courage to give it a go).

On top of all this greatness, you can also pick up Skippy peanut butter at about half the price of the going rate at an “American” section in mainstream London supermarkets. Chinese wine and Skippy peanut butter – clearly, Loon Fong is my kind of place.

2. The bah tzang bah tzang or zongzi for sale on Gerrard Streetlady who shows up in the evenings and parks herself and her homemade wares on the doorstep of Ladbrokes (a betting chain) next door to the Loon Fung.

What’s a bah tsang? See photo at left. It’s a portable meal. Sticky rice and a variety of fillings (fillings depend on what part of China you’re in or from) get wrapped up in bamboo leaf, tied with a string, and steamed. When you want to eat it, you can eat it cold or re-steam the whole thing and voila, you have a hot, tasty meal that doesn’t even require a plate or fork. It’s a Chinese tamale, really.

The bah tzang lady sells fresh, simple, homemade ones filled with pork and egg for £1 each, and sometimes she’s accompanied by a woman who sells homemade sesame candy that looks tasty, too.

3. Chinese Experience (118 Shaftesbury Avenue) restaurant for unusual, creative, fresh dim sum and Royal Dragon (30 Gerrard Street) restaurant for traditional, but also fresh dim sum. Alas, be warned that the vast majority of dim sum places in London don’t do the carts. It’s all about ticking boxes off on a form listing all your dim sum options.

Our favorites at the Chinese Experience restaurant include the crispy turnip cake served Singapore-style and the crispy Beijing-style dumplings with sesame (see photo at the top of this post). Shanghai soup dumpling at Chinese ExperienceThat said, the biggest draw of Chinese Experience are the decent xiao long bao, the Shanghai soup dumplings (see photo at right) that I’ve craved since the days when I could drop by Joe’s Shanghai at my leisure.

The Chinese Experience version is good because the skin is thin but also sturdy so the soup doesn’t leak out, and the pork filling and soup are flavorful, though it lacks the zing that thrilled at Joe’s or Din Tai Fung in Taipei.

Still, It’s the best in quality/price we’ve found so far in London. (The nearby ECapital Shanghai restaurant also serves them, but they’re pricier and have a subpar thick skin; Royal China Club and Yauatcha serve good ones, but they’re expensive enough that you don’t want to pop by too often).

And that’s my two cents’ on London Chinatown. If anyone reading this post wants to recommend additional sources of xiao long bao in London, I’m all ears!
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steamed sweet dumplings at Royal China Club

Happy Chinese New Year, all! Yesterday heralded the Year of the Golden Pig. And you know that the Golden Pig shows its snout only once every 60 years, so this is no ordinary Chinese New Year. Among other things, it’s a good year to bust out with a kid because then he/she will have an easy, prosperous life.

Jon and I went to a friend’s house on Saturday night to celebrate new year’s eve. We were the only two people who showed up wearing red. It’s always nice to show up in matching outfits for reasons not apparent to other party guests. It makes you seem extra cool.

Yesterday, we ate a million courses of dim sum and New Year’s specials (longevity noodles, anyone?) at Royal China Club on Baker Street. We’ve been before to the “regular” Royal China next door, and I’ve always found the dim sum there overpriced, but the Royal China Club was a lot snazzier in decor, more gracious in service and slightly more creative in food. Based on the £35 per person price tag for dim sum, I assume the RC Club’s competition is something like Yauatcha, though the coolness factor is not high at the RC Club.

Highlights of our new year’s lunch yesterday included a roast suckling pig so beautifully crisped and sliced that it was hard to distinguish it from a peking-style duck. The tea also gets a shout out. Whatever we were drinking was refreshing and fragrant – jasmine with a pinch of peach. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sweets, which normally I dislike at Chinese restaurants. There was moi gee (chewy rice-flour cookies) magically filled with vanilla ice cream, and a bamboo steamer of fluffy, white steamed dumplings filled with a sweet, eggy custard (see photo at top).

I didn’t order nian gao (New Year’s cake) to go like some of the other lunchers, because I’m a fake Chinese (sorry, Mom and Dad!) and fail to appreciate a pudding made of glutinous rice and steamed with fruits. But I did visit friends the entire afternoon, so I think all in all, Jon and I were pretty diligent celebrants of the new year.
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